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McMaster launches final term at South Carolina inauguration

Henry McMaster, Peggy McMaster
Meg Kinnard/AP
/
AP
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, left, takes the oath of office as his wife, Peggy McMaster, and other family members look on at his second inaugural on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

Gov. Henry McMaster touted South Carolina's economic growth and pledged educational advancement and environmental conservation in his inaugural address on Wednesday as he entered what could be a historic final term.

Already the oldest person to hold his position, McMaster could become South Carolina's longest-serving chief executive. Upon completion of his second full term, the Republican will have logged an unprecedented 10 years in office after finishing the final two years of former Gov. Nikki Haley's tenure.

With that legacy taking shape, McMaster outlined his vision for the next four years and beyond in a speech lasting nearly 20 minutes and filled with soaring references to the state's history and natural landscape.

“The question today is: Will anyone recognize our South Carolina in 100 years? Will we allow our state's culturally and environmentally significant structures, monuments, lands, islands and waterways to be lost forever — to overdevelopment, mismanagement, flooding, erosion or from storm damage?” McMaster told the crowd gathered under partly-cloudy blue skies on the south side of the Statehouse.

“Or will we preserve and protect our history and our environment, and the public's access to them? This is our moment to act, while we still can.”

McMaster listed his administration's actions over the past six years: the state's largest income tax cut, an overhauled school funding formula, and a new cabinet agency to marshal disaster recovery efforts, among others.

The message echoed his pitch this past fall to voters, who sent him back to the Governor's mansion with the largest margin of victory a South Carolina gubernatorial election has seen in over three decades: business is booming. He noted the record $10 billion in capital investments last calendar year recently announced by the South Carolina Department of Commerce — the most in state history.

South Carolina is seeing record rates of teacher vacancies amid a nationwide educator shortage. McMaster again Wednesday said he would raise the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 by 2026 and place resource officers in every school.

But one of McMaster’s top priorities entering office recently suffered a blow when the South Carolina Supreme Court last Thursday struck down the state’s six-week abortion ban. The governor has vowed he would work with lawmakers to correct what he called the justices’ “error.”

McMaster did not explicitly mention abortion in his inauguration speech. Instead, he made a veiled reference to the decision by adding his voice to the increased scrutiny around the state's judicial selection process. South Carolina is one of two states where legislators pick judges. Lawmakers choose judges from a candidate pool deemed qualified by a selection commission.

“We must also ensure that the public has confidence in whom and how all our judges are selected — by making the processes more transparent and accountable; so that every South Carolinian, born and unborn, may enjoy life, liberty and happiness,” McMaster said to much applause.

McMaster has been credited for developing a strong relationship with the General Assembly. In a welcome address kicking off the ceremony, Senate President Thomas Alexander thanked McMaster for his collaborative leadership style.

In his speech, McMaster directed state lawmakers' attention to several other priorities. The governor called for changes to the bail system and laws that would “keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals and juveniles.”

Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and other state officers, including new Education Superintendent Ellen Weaver, were also sworn into office Wednesday. Two fighter jets flew over the Statehouse grounds shortly after McMaster took the oath of office.

Five former governors attended the ceremony. McMaster's longevity contrasts with recent occupants who ascended to national profiles in the governor’s mansion on their way to other posts.

McMaster’s predecessors both assumed federal office and have considered or pursued the White House. Haley resigned in 2017 to join then-President Donald Trump’s administration as United Nations ambassador and is mulling a possible 2024 run. Mark Sanford launched an unsuccessful primary challenge to Trump in 2020 after his eight years as governor were bookended by separate three-term stints in U.S. Congress.

“He was not using South Carolina as a political stepping stone,” said Bob McAlister, a Columbia-area public relations consultant who has supported McMaster. “He has always said that the governorship was his calling and it’s what he wanted to do.”

Wednesday's inauguration capped a long public service career spanning several generations of Republican leaders. McMaster's online biography notes that in 1981 he became the first U.S. attorney appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan. As lieutenant governor, McMaster shocked the state's GOP establishment in 2016 when he became the first statewide officeholder to endorse Trump's presidential candidacy. McMaster has already endorsed Trump's 2024 presidential campaign, announcing his support just hours after the former president launched his bid.

His political career has also witnessed the GOP takeover of South Carolina government. McMaster lost the 1986 U.S. Senate race to incumbent Sen. Fritz Hollings, the last Democrat to represent the state in U.S. Senate. McMaster has since chaired the South Carolina Republican Party and was twice elected the state's attorney general.

McMaster, 75, is the 3rd oldest governor in the U.S. behind Alabama’s Kay Ivey, 78, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, 76. McMaster, who was the first Columbia native to serve as governor in a century, began inauguration day with a prayer service at First Presbyterian Church, where he regularly attends.

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James Pollard is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.